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Submitted by sat on 17 April 2019

Answer reviewed 27 February 2023

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel and seen as an alternative to petroleum diesel.1 Biodiesel is produced by reacting an alcohol, usually methanol, with a vegetable oil or animal fat in the presence of a catalyst. Commonly used catalysts include potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The chemical reaction is called transesterification and the products formed are methyl esters (the biodiesel) and glycerol. There are several possible methods for making biodiesel in the school science laboratory.

We recommend the method and scale available through the BBSRC2 based upon the one published by CLEAPSS3, for the following reasons:

We recommend that if an extension activity for burning the biodiesel is to be conducted, that one of the following methods is used in a fume cupboard.

Safety Notes

Waste Disposal

The transesterification reaction, which is used to produce biodiesel, produces methyl esters of fatty acids (the biodiesel), with glycerol as the main byproduct. The reaction mixture will form two layers. The top layer contains the biodiesel as well as some unreacted vegetable oil (triacylglycerols), some methanol, glycerol and other contaminants. The bottom layer contains glycerol, methanol, methoxide salt, soap (saponified fatty acids) and hydroxide. The ratio of biodiesel to glycerol in the product is about 10:1 by mass.

There are methods to treat both the biodiesel and the glycerol byproduct for disposal, however these are generally time consuming and not practical for the school setting.6

Unused biodiesel must be kept for a licenced chemical waste disposal contractor because of the contaminants in it. It can be combined with other non-halogenated organic waste. Whether kept separate or combined, a label should be affixed on the side of the bottle stating the contents.

If the reaction is carried out on a small scale so that only very small amounts of glycerol are produced, then the glycerol layer can be washed down the sink. Glycerol is miscible with water and biodegradable, however it has a high oxygen demand (i.e. oxygen in the water body will be consumed as the glycerol degrades) and so, larger quantities should not be washed to waste. Larger quantities of glycerol should be stored for collection by a licenced waste disposal contractor.

References and further information

1 Bioenergy Australia, Fuel, Bioenergy Australia website,

2 MacLean, Tristan. 2014. Practical Biofuel Activities for School Engagement and Outreach, Activity 1D Biodiesel production pp25–30, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Available for download at ‘Practical biofuel activities’, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) website, (Accessed February 2023)

3 CLEAPSS, 2007, Making biodiesel, CLEAPSS website, (Login required)

4 Royal Society of Chemistry, Resources: Making biodiesel, RSC Education website, (Accessed February 2023)

5 American Chemical Society, Preparation & Combustion of Biodiesel, American Chemical Society website, (Accessed February 2023)

6 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, 2008, Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommercial Use and Production, SARE website,

 Australian Government, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. n.d. Why we should recycle used motor oil, Australian Government, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts website, (Accessed February 2023)

Biofuels, 2010, Biofuel Chemistry: How they Burn’, Biofuel UK website (Accessed February 2023)

Science ASSIST, 2015, Question: Fuels, Science ASSIST website,

eXtension Farm Energy, 2023, Waste Management in Biodiesel Production, eXtension Farm Energy website,